The Spider and The Cookie


The Spider and The Cookie


Phoenix Hocking

Dear Joan,

I know this letter may sound a little odd, but here goes anyway.

I have a spider that lives in my bathroom. He’s not very big; I mean, he’s not a tarantula or a black widow or anything like that. He’s just a normal-looking spider.

He’s quite an industrious fellow and has provided me with much entertainment watching him weave his webs while I am … ahem … otherwise engaged.

I just moved into this apartment a few months ago, after Charlie died. I can sometimes go for days without speaking to another living soul, so I’ve kind of gotten used to talking to Harold, that’s the spider. He was here when I got here, hidden away in the corner near the bathtub.

Anyway, one day I was sitting on the porcelain throne, doing my business while Harold was doing his. (Oh dear, I’ve never thought about just where Harold does his “business.” Maybe I don’t want to know.)

My Bridge club’s annual Baking Contest was coming up, and I was talking to Harold about it.

“What am I going to do, Harold?” I said. “I’m a terrible baker.”

Well, you can imagine my surprise when I heard a voice. “Why don’t you bake cookies?” the voice said.

I looked around the bathroom, but the only two living creatures in there were Harold and me.

“Did you talk to me?” I leaned forward and directed my question toward the small spider who was energetically working on his elaborate web.

“Of course I did,” the voice said. The voice was high and squeaky, and kind of rusty sounding, as if it hadn’t been used in a while.

I leaned against the back of the toilet. The lid scraped against the tank, so I straightened up right away.

“Well,” I said to myself. “I’ve finally gone ’round the bend. No hope for me now. Call the little men in the white coats.”

“Oh shush,” the voice said. “You’ve been talking to me for weeks now. Isn’t it time I talked back?”

I sighed. If this was some sort of hallucination, I guess I could think of others that could be worse.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. Why cookies? And what kind of cookies? Nobody brings cookies. I mean, Maureen is a champion baker. She wins almost every year.”

“Exactly. Bake something unexpected,” Harold answered.

I wiped myself and got up. “You just don’t understand,” I said as I pulled up my pants. “These people expect fancy. Why, last year Ellen won with a Croquenbouche! How can I possibly compete with that?”

Harold waited until I washed my hands, then repeated, “Exactly. You can’t compete with that, so why don’t you just bake something you’ll enjoy eating by yourself when you have to bring it home?”

That stopped me in my tracks. Hmmm, there was that. Every year I was stuck bringing home some fancy dessert I’d tried that ended up being a disaster. I was always so disappointed, I ended up just throwing the stuff away. At least this way, I could drown my sorrows in cookies and milk.

I turned around. Harold was still working on his web. “Okay, why not?” I said. “What kind of cookies shall I make?”

He stopped his weaving for a second, then answered, “Toll House. Everybody loves a nice Toll House chocolate chip cookie.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “What would you know about Toll House cookies?”

The squeaky voice sounded sad. “The lady who used to live here made them often. Sometimes she’d share a crumb or two with me.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I didn’t know spiders liked cookies.”

“This one does.”

I went into the kitchen and got out my recipe book. I had almost everything, but I was out of vanilla.

“I’m going to the store, Harold,” I called. “You need anything?”

I grinned to myself. If I was going nuts, at least I could have fun doing it.

I heard a high squeaky voice coming from the bathroom. “If you see a sale on some nice juicy flies, bring me home a dozen!”

The following day, I arranged my Toll House cookies on a pretty plate and covered them with Saran Wrap. They looked good. I’d tasted one, and they tasted good. I’d given a crumb to Harold, and he pronounced them just as good as his previous roommate’s.

But my heart sank when I arrived at Ellen’s house. All the fancy desserts were laid out on her dining room table.

Ellen made Petit Fours, all exactly the same size, but each decorated with a different fancy design.

Maureen made a Bouche de Noel, a rolled cake made to look like a log, complete with something that looked like pastry mushrooms on the side.

Harriet brought Hamentashen.

Elena brought a Plum Clafouti.

Janet brought a Tiramisu.

And Sue brought an apple tart, beautifully arranged.

And there, down at the very end of the table, sat my sad and lonely plate of Toll House chocolate chip cookies.

Ellen put her arm around me, giving me a one-armed shoulder hug. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said condescendingly. “I’m sure they’ll be lovely.”

Just then, Ellen’s four teenage boys came rushing into the room. “Hey, Mom,” one of them said, “we’re all going over to Fred’s to play football, okay?”

“Sure, honey,” she answered.

“Oh look!” he cried. “Real cookies!”

And before a person could say, “What the heck just happened?” the plate, with the cookies on it, disappeared out the door.

“Wow!” I heard one boy say. “These are really good!”

“Yeah, better than all that fancy stuff,” I heard as their voices trailed away.

Later that afternoon, after Bridge was over and the contest had been decided, I went home. The first thing I did was head for the bathroom.

“So, how did it go?” asked Harold.

I dropped my drawers and positioned myself on the throne. “Janet won for her Tiramisu,” I said.

“And the cookies?”

I grinned. “They were the biggest hit of all,” I answered. “They won the only award that really counted.”

“So,” said Harold, “I don’t suppose you found a sale on flies while you were out.”

“No, but I saved you a crumb of Toll House cookie.”

“Thanks,” he said, “just put it on the floor, I’ll have it for dessert.”

So, Joan, there you have it. I suppose you’ll be ready to call the nut squad after you get this letter, but I’m really fine. Harold has encouraged me to try to make peanut butter cookies next time. If they turn out well, I’ll send you a dozen.

Love, your sister, Betty Ann


The Survivor


The Survivor


Phoenix Hocking

I’m just not in the mood for you today,” Margaret said aloud as she closed the book she was reading. “Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

She put both hands on the arms of her chair and hoisted herself up, grunting as she did so. “Whew,” she said, “that just gets harder and harder all the time.”

Margaret was sixty-eight years old. She was still in good shape, for the shape she was in. She could still care for herself, and if there was anyone else around for her to care for, she could watch over them as well.

But there wasn’t.

She made her way into the kitchen where she put the kettle on the stove. She turned on the gas and lit the burner with a match. The electronic starter went out some time ago, and of course, there was no way to get it fixed. Still, it lit with a match, and for that she was grateful.

In fact, she was grateful that she still had some gas. Once this was gone, though, that would be it. She would be reduced to building a fire in the driveway of her mobile home.

“At least I remember how to do that,” she said to the stove. She got a bag of Lipton tea from the cupboard and put it in a cup. She waited for the kettle to boil as she thought over the last few months.

If she looked out of her living room window, everything pretty much looked the same as it always did. She could see Twila’s mobile home across the street, sandwiched between Harriet’s on the left and George’s on the right. They’d been nice people, and Margaret missed them.

But they were gone now, along with everyone else.

“Everyone except me,” Margaret said aloud. “I wonder why I was spared.”

It hadn’t taken long. A disease, the likes of which had never been seen before, had ravaged the nation, and almost everyone was dead within a week or two. Some sort of plague, the television news commentator said, before there was no more television. Something had escaped from some government lab; some chemical weapon they’d been working on to keep their enemies in check. It got loose, and now look what happened.

“I wonder if I’m really the only person left alive,” Margaret said to the kettle. It whistled in response, and Margaret poured the hot water over her tea bag.

In the beginning, she’d looked around her neighborhood, but everyone was dead, or had run away hoping to outrun the Death that stalked the world. Only she was left.

She took a sniff of the tea, but wrinkled her nose in disgust. Nothing. She had no sense of smell whatsoever.

The funny thing was that although all the people were dead, everything else was alive and vibrant. The trees and grass were still green, the flowers continued to grow, the birds still sang in the trees. And God knew the cockroaches were just as plentiful as ever.

“I’d like to smell those flowers again,” she said sadly.

When the Death came, most people succumbed within a few days of contracting the disease, whatever it was. Margaret fell sick herself, but for some reason known only to God, she recovered. The only thing that seemed to be affected was her sense of smell. She had none.

She was grateful for that, too, considering.

“So, I’d sure like to know what you were thinking, God,” Margaret said as she slowly sipped her tea. “I mean, why me? Why let me live when all the young people might have actually done something to heal this old world of ours. Why pick me to live? I’ll be dead soon enough in any case.”

There was no answer.

Margaret shuffled into her bedroom. The water had long since stopped running, but she kept a basin full to wash with. She gave herself what her mother used to call a “PTA bath,” which Margaret had always found to be rather vulgar. She preferred to call her morning ablutions a “bird bath” instead, rather than “piss, tits, and armpits.”

She washed and dried herself, then hung the towel over the bar. Why she bothered to bathe, she did not know. There was nobody around to notice if she stank or not, and she herself couldn’t tell either. But she’d had a bath every morning of her life for sixty-eight years, and saw no reason to end the practice now. Besides, what if she really did meet someone else still alive? She wouldn’t want to offend them, whomever it was.

She dressed for duty. Jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, heavy socks, boots.

She heard the scratching on the front door and smiled.

“Coming!” she called. “I’m coming!”

For some reason, again known only to God, just as Margaret was the only human left alive (that she could tell, anyway), Scruffy was the only dog. He was a mutt of indeterminate breed, part Lab maybe, part German Shepherd, part St. Bernard. It was hard to tell. But Scruffy was a big dog, and Margaret found that comforting for some reason.

Scruffy came to her house every morning, and they went about Margaret’s business together, a working team in their unpleasant task. But when work was over, he accepted whatever Margaret gave him to eat, and then went home to his empty house.

“Hey, Scruffy,” Margaret said as she opened the door. “How are you this morning?”

Scruffy just smiled his big-dog smile, baring all his teeth and letting his tongue hang out of his mouth.

“You hungry?”

The dog headed for the kitchen.

Margaret got a manual can opener from the drawer, reached into the cupboard and pulled out a can of dog food. She’d found the food in Scruffy’s house and brought it to her own. Scruffy’s owners were the first she’d had to take care of.

Scruffy ate quickly, then sat on his haunches, as if he were waiting for instructions.

She sighed. “Well, I guess there isn’t much choice in the matter, is there, old boy?” she asked.

Scruffy wagged his tail in reply.

Margaret went through the laundry room and opened the back door. She collected her heavy gloves from the top of the washing machine. The shovel remained where she had placed it the day before. She hoisted it to her shoulder, groaning a little as she did so.

“Lord, you really could have picked somebody a little younger for this job, You think? I really am too old for this nonsense.”

There was no answer.

Margaret had buried almost all of who had been the residents of her mobile home park. Scruffy had led her to the homes where bodies lay, stinking and bloated, though Margaret couldn’t smell them. Some homes were empty, the residents having left in hopes of outrunning the Death, but there was still one left with bodies that needed to be laid to rest.

It was not pleasant work.

At first, she didn’t know where to bury her neighbors. The cemetery was quite a distance away, and loading the bodies in her car was exhausting. In the end, she finally decided that she would simply bury them in their own small yards. She could still dig a hole that might not have been the requisite six feet deep, but was still deep enough to drag a body to, wrestle it in, and cover it.

After she had buried Scruffy’s owners, the dog seemed to know what she was doing, and helped her by digging alongside her. It was hard work for both of them, but there was no rush. She couldn’t smell the bodies, and Scruffy didn’t seem to care.

She was working on space D3. The Cartwrights had lived there, and Margaret was happy that neither of them were large people. They were both in bed, which made it easier for Margaret to simply wrap the sheets around them and drag them outside. She tried to be gentle with the bodies. After all, they were people she had known and liked. They’d played Bingo together on Wednesday nights, attended the same Bridge games on Tuesdays, and lounged around the pool together on warm summer evenings.

They’d been friends. And now they were gone.

Margaret dug their graves, pausing now and again to wipe her face, and to gaze into the distance.

“So, what do you think, Scruffy?” she asked the dog. “Are we the only ones left?”

Scruffy had no answer, just a wag of the tail.

That evening, after her work was done, she fed Scruffy and herself, then sat on the front porch of her mobile home. All the bodies in her small park had now been laid to rest. She had long since equipped her trailer with everything she needed.

Eternity stretched before her in a long, unending, lonely road.

“What are we going to do now, Scruffy?” she asked. “There’s nothing left to do.”

The evening began to close in around her. An soft breeze stirred the leaves of the Elm in her front yard. The flowers began to close against the dusk. A meadowlark sang briefly, then went silent.

Scruffy rose and stretched. He started down the steps, then turned when Margaret got up from her chair.

“Scruffy, stay with me tonight, would you?” Margaret hated the pleading in her voice, but suddenly the thought of being alone was frightening. “I … I don’t want to be by myself.”

She sat down again.  A tear gathered at the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away with one hand. “Please?”

Scruffy stood at the bottom step. He faced his old home and stared for a while. Then he turned and trotted back up the stairs. He placed his head on Margaret’s knee, looked up at her, and wagged his tail gently.

“Thank you, my friend,” Margaret said softly. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but whatever it is, I’m glad you’re with me.”

And so, the two survivors sat on the porch long into the night, staring up at the stars, sharing the end of the world together.

The End